MIAMI - Rick Scott, Florida's tea-party-backed Republican governor, thought he'd have an easy time pushing through his agenda. After all, he won election last fall at the same time voters voted into power what he bragged was the most conservative legislature this state has seen since the Civil War.
But Tuesday, the first day of the new legislative session, saw "Awake the State"demonstrations in 32 cities across the state, aiming to do one thing: stop Gov. Scott's proposed "skeleton budget."
Scott's $65 billion budget includes a nearly $5 billion cut in education, and $3 billion cut from Medicaid over the next two years. It proposes to lay off 8,600 state workers - 7.3 percent of the workforce - and cut benefits for those remaining.
"This would be the biggest cut in education in the history of the state of Florida - not for the last decade, not in the last decade, but ever," said the emcee of the rally in Miami, where several hundred people took their lunch hour to protest outside the Miami-Dade government offices.
The 32 anti-Scott "Awake the State" rallies dwarfed the single pro-Scott rally of about 500 in Tallahassee, the capital. While the Awake rallies were organized by state and local grassroots organizations, the pro-Scott demonstrators had a helpful ally - or puppeteer: Americans for Prosperity, bankrolled by the notorious billionaire Koch brothers. The fake grassroots AFP front poured money into the pro-Scott rally, including for the costs of 14 buses and vans that brought the 500 tea party activists from around the state.
Scott plans to cut corporate income taxes by more than two points - from 5.5 percent to 3 percent - in the upcoming fiscal year, and abolish them altogether by 2018. That may explain the Koch brothers' support for him.
A speaker from the Gray Panthers told the Miami rally that people are fighting Scott's budget out of economic necessity, but also because "Governor Scott's attack on public unions is an attack on people, it's an attack on our freedom, and it's a giveaway of public money to his rich friends."
In his State of the State address, delivered later in the day, Scott struck a populist tone, saying, "As we meet tonight, unemployment in Florida stands at 12 percent." He argued that his proposals would create jobs for the hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Floridians. Even before Scott spoke, those at the Awake the State rally begged to differ.
"Scott and the Republican state leadership," the Gray Panther said, "don't give a damn about workers, firefighters, police officers. Now, I believe the police officers I used to work with who always voted Republican are beginning to see things differently."
Richard Lydecker, chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, told the crowd, "I want to express our support for public unions." The fight to preserve them, he said, "is about the middle class."
"The family unit is under attack," Keith Ivory, speaking for the Power U Center for Social Change, said. "Low income and no income, we need jobs."
Ivory noted that Gov. Scott who is so adamant about saving the taxpayers' money, was involved in the biggest case of Medicare fraud in American history. The health care corporation of which he was CEO, Columbia/HCA, was fined $1.7 billion in 1997 for defrauding the government out of billions of dollars in Medicare funds.
Florida New Majority, which played a lead role in organizing the Awake the State rallies, said low-income and unemployed workers would rally in Tallahassee on Wednesday against SB 7005, which has "rapidly moved through committee" in the Florida legislature. It would slash unemployment compensation, Florida's strongest stimulus program.
Towards the end of Tuesday's Miami rally, dozens of people, many members of the Miami Workers Center and Low Income Families Fighting Together, boarded a bus bound for Tallahassee. They vowed that they would press the message of the Awake the State rallies in the capital.
Also on Tuesday, another rally in Miami protested Republican plans to gut teacher tenure.
Photo: Rally participants fill the bus to Tallahassee. Dan Margolis/PW